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Introvert/Extrovert Guide to BlogHer

Many posts this week offer suggestions for managing social anxiety to make it through BlogHer’s premiere conference in San Jose next week. Breathe deeply, introverts are told,  and trust that you’ll find remarkable connections and moments even when surrounded by 5,000 people.

Those posts are useful, by the way, and contain solid advice for managing social anxiety in large crowds.

But I haven’t noticed many suggestions on how to best harness your extroversion at BlogHer’14. I noticed because I wander back and forth across the extrovert/introvert line, getting energy by being alone but with public-performance itches about as theatrical as you can get. It is from this ambivalent place that I bring you my Introvert/Extrovert Guide to BlogHer’14.

image credit: uminntilt.wordpress.com

Introverts: Though there are a lot of people at BlogHer, they don’t actually surround you at any point. You don’t have to face 5,000 people or touch 5,000 people. You will be in the same city as 5,000 people. That likely happens to you daily. There is space to be alone and close out the noises when you need to. And when it’s time to listen to the awesome content produced by the many lovely humans sharing their knowledge and passion at a BlogHer conference, you’ll be in a room with 20-100 people, all of whom are ignoring you to listen.

Extroverts: Sakes alive, there will be times for you to be near 5,000 people! This is only at eating occasions, of course, and nobody will pay any attention to you because they’re waiting for or eating food and trying to have conversations with the one or two people who’ve piqued their interest. But you can spend the lunch break walking past hundreds of tables, feeding off the buzz of engaged, excited bloggers. And if you sit down and make contact with the people at one table, you will have at least ten people with whom to talk, laugh, cry, and share. If that doesn’t work, get up and try another table. There are hundreds of opportunities for an audience.

Introverts: Rest assured, there are places to get away. Convention Centers are notoriously large, but that means there are hundreds of bathroom stalls into which you can be by yourself when necessary. Walk the opposite direction of any stream of lovely humans and sneak into the farthest bathroom you can find. At both the hotel and convention center last year I found bathrooms that were completely empty. And I mean take-your-pick-from-ten-stalls empty. Door closed, lock slid, deep breath taken, wall of voices dissipated, blood pressure calmed. [Side note: avoid the coffee lines at all costs if you're introverted. Caffeinated people who want more caffeine but have to wait for quite some time often get both chatty and agitated. I have PCLSD (post coffee line stress disorder) from last year.]

Extroverts: Prepare and pace yourself, there are many choices for places to see, be seen, chat, and engage. There are thousands of excited bloggers around you. My caution to you is this: the generally celebrated habit of approaching strangers with a warm smile and firm handshake does not always go over well at BlogHer. At social parties I try to approach those who look out of place or uncomfortable because I seek to place at ease the world’s discomfited. But at BlogHer, there are more than a handful of introverts just trying to get by, and my approach with a willingness to converse is their kryptonite. Set your anxiety-scanner to high and proceed with care before approaching a blogger who looks as though she could use a friend. If she runs in the opposite direction, it’s probably because she needs to go to the loo. The farthest one.

Introverts: Choose your panels in advance so you can schedule where to be and when. That way you know when your breaks are, you know where to go, and you can look confident moving toward something. You will find amazing moments if you schedule a bit of social time, too, not just the deeply informational sessions. Try the VOTY party for reasonably low-key, high-quality socializing with bloggers you might read. It’s the end of Friday’s activities which means if you’ve had too much DAY in your day, you can pop in, grab some food, and leave. Just know you don’t have to go to anything. You choose. Default to just the sessions and you’ll have a wonderful conference. Try a few of the parties or mixer sessions and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Extroverts: Choose your panels in advance so you can schedule where to be and when. If you tend to default to going wherever the herd is going, you will miss the sessions that might change your life. Stick to a plan of what your personal or professional needs are at BlogHer, and save the socializing for the many opportunities the schedule gives you for interaction. In my humble opinion, the VOTY party is your best bet for full-on extrovert time because the food and the company ROCK.

Introverts: Take advantage of the scheduled breaks. There is time between sessions and after meals during which you can decompress. Please, for the sake of all that’s holy, get away and get some quiet. BlogHer offers 15+ hours per day of programming. You will die a hard, exhausted death on the way back to the hotel if you don’t take every free minute as a hide-in-the-loo break.

Extroverts: You, too. Take breaks. You will supernova if you don’t pace yourself. It’s 5,000 people 15+ hours a day for three days. You won’t miss too much if you put your feet up for 15 minutes.

Introverts: You are among your people. Many, many bloggers are drained by social interaction, and you will likely find a group of other creative, lovely, inspired, passionate introverts with whom to bond. Take a deep breath and know that the BlogHer attendees know about introversion. We know you’re going to need time away. We’re cool with that, mostly because a lot of us are like you.

Extroverts: You’re among your people. Many BlogHer attendees thrive on social interaction and want both planned sessions and party time. You will likely find a group of other creative, lovely, inspired, passionate, extroverts with whom to bond. Brace yourself and get everything from this process as you can. They built [a nearby] City on rock and roll. And extroverts like you!

5

I’m in love

Summer crashes in waves around us, cool mornings rising into bone-baking heat, quiet nights shaking into riotous days, weeks of unstructured play and family camping shifting into time-demarked camps and faux school.

And I am in love with the season.

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The amazing benefit to having Seasonal Affective Disorder is that summers are downright manic. So while I spend winters in front of a lightbox, forcing exercise, and wearing bright colors to make it through, from May to August I stockpile joy. I’m cramming all the sunshine I can into my cells. So I don’t forget what good feels like.

I watch my children slurp and mangle the melon my grandmother taught us was the single best treat ever grown. Canary yellow rind, orange and green flesh, and fragrant, nectar-flavored flesh not too firm and not too soft. She insisted on calling it Juan Canary long after marketers decided it would sell better with just the word Canary. And from the May-or-June moment I spy it in stores until the moment my children toss the rind gleefully into the compost bucket and grab more, running past me and out the backdoor in our pretend game of “don’t you dare eat another slice of melon, young man, that melon is the legacy of my grandmother and you may not have anymore, dagnabbit,” I am in love with the taste of nostalgia and happiness.

I wake each morning in the cool, already-loud house, stretching my gloriously midlife body and aching back into the eleven-year-old bed and listen to my children navigate what will be the most important relationship of their lives. And I know soon they’ll spend more time with peers than with a mother and brother. And I know my days of influence are waning even now, even while they’re as young as eight and four. I luxuriate in their giggles and teasing because it’s my morning. This time is mine. This place, this body, this family is mine. And none of it will last. Cool will become hot, slow will become quick, giggling will become screaming, achy will become strong and active. And I am in love with the day.

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Visitors from far and near have peopled our days with fun and love. My new camera has captured more than 2,000 images seemingly on its own, for I have been present, breathing in the wonder and the joy and the fights and the mess. Focus pulls fore and back, swallowing mountains and lakes and trees and flowers, always somehow capturing two wild little boys exploring, yelling, learning, laughing. And reading. I photograph them reading because whether they read together or apart, their bodies are still for a moment while their minds race. I am in love with the flux, and I get weak-kneed at the joy of photographing our oscillations.

We went camping as a family and learned that our new, separation-borne calm kindness extends to family gatherings. So we’re doing well as a family that lives in different houses and as a family that takes trips together. And they’re doing well as three guys who develop their own rules and boundaries and rhythms. Once we returned to the house we still share but don’t really, I spent time with a friend, relaxed into myself in the way that work, run, eat, work, sleep, and more work makes parents feel like regular people who can turn off their ears and attention and fetching arms for a while. I am in love with having a self.

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It has been three months since the boys’ father and I decided we have to change a situation that brought out our worst. It’s been two months since he moved into an apartment and we thoughtfully began working out the logistics of getting us both as much time as possible with the kids. I’m up late every night researching and drafting and emailing to hammer out logistics. And I’ll be honest: I don’t like this part at all. Disentangling is a pain in the heart and in the neck. But then I make lunches and bake muffins and work on deadline and wash off my new fancy-pants blush. It’s all going to be okay. Because the days are full of play and photography and mountains and lakes and family and friends and beach and music.

Oh, the music.

Since the house lost one resident, I have been playing music almost non-stop. Old favorites and new discoveries, I have a need for the creative spark and emotional salve that music offers. Two weeks before we decided to change our marriage, I asked the googles for help finding some new music based on my preferences. I blindly bought two CDs, which is something that old people do, usually with a pang of nostalgia that they can’t go to a record store and debate between a tape and vinyl. The CDs languished, unheard, on my desk until I had to send that desk, empty, to its new home. I shifted all my work paraphernalia and personal treasures onto an underused table and nestled it into a corner recently made empty in the bedroom. And I played the first CD.

I haven’t stopped playing it for two months. Both my computer and car play the same CD on a loop. I don’t know why this acoustic-guitar songwriting duo has so captivated me. But only one CD into this new relationship with two younger men, I am in love.

Enjoy your summer. Eat many strawberries and nectarines, splash in some sort of water, photograph those you love, and perhaps invest in a new blush. Just see what happens.

And try some Juan Canary melon.

It tastes like love.

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1

Ode* on Music and Typography

In the mood for a good swoon? Below lies a link to a soulful duo who sing beautifully then take a break to discuss the historical origin of a ligature.

photo from americansongwriter.com

photo from americansongwriter.com

Seriously.

Even if you’re not into their music, which I am—most certainly, unabashedly, devotedly— I do believe you’ll enjoy the The Milk Carton Kids’ Lincoln Theater Concert.

What part of the hour-plus should you watch?

Perhaps at 5:28, where Joey Ryan, duo’s resident comic and poet, discusses their choice of ampersand over the word and in “the Ash & Clay” (that song follows the brief interlude and is hauntingly beautiful).

Perhaps begin your viewing at 9:17 where Ryan mocks his partner for adding a perfectly placed comma in the song “Honey, Honey.” The song follows, and is one of my top three favorites lately.

But certainly you’re going to want to watch at 42:00, right after the gentlemen finish a gorgeous version of their popular song “Michigan” (which begins at 35:38) where there is a righteous, hilarious, and awkward typographical history lesson that blows my hair back as much as the resonant harmonies and instrumentation of the songs themselves. Y’all, this rock concert takes a break to discuss the etymology of the word ampersand. It goes off the rails a bit before “Snake Eyes,” but I don’t care. Both men are irresistible: funny, talented, soulful, and a bit shy. I think I’m in love.

And if the glorious per se discussion piques your interest, listen in on their Portland Sessions.

A wonderful friend asked me as I drove her to dinner the other night, “Why are you playing this depressing hippie music?”

Now, she might be one of the best humans who has happened into my life, but she totally misses the point here. Aside from the fact that I love, love, love depressing music, for I do. The Milk Carton Kids, however, are cheerful, hipster acoustic folk, not depressing hippie music. Remarkably wordy, funny, compelling, and dreamy.

Duh, anonymous friend. Duh.

Enjoy.

*Yes, I know an ode demands a lyrical stanzaic structure quite different from this Teen-Beat-esque post. But I don’t much care. I’m tired, there are ligatures, and I’ll be damned if I’m pretentious enough to actually compose strophe, antistrophe, and epode about my music crushes. And I wasn’t going to get much traffic with “Ekphrasis on Erudite Concerts.” Just let me casually title my posts and get back to singing in my car, would you please?
15

Crowdsourced parenting

Ah, the joys of having two boys home for the summer. Together. Every day. Incessantly.

They’ve never particularly worked well together, what with the opinionated and high-strung (don’t know where he gets it) paired with the flamboyant and stubborn (don’t know where he gets it, either). Since the beginning, the eldest gives his brother exactly zero slack, and the youngest adores his brother until he perceives slight, and then he lashes out.

It’s good times. And has been for years.

So to keep from committing some form of -icide this summer, I’m trying a few techniques. And I want to know which YOU think might work better:

1. Put the whole cache of toys in time-out. Not initially, of course. But starting with the first shriek of disdain each morning, every nasty word, hit, kick, sneer, tease, and threat will trigger a toy being stuffed atop the fridge. The fridge where I prefer to keep the cereal and the whiskey will buckle beneath the weight of endless supplies of LEGO and Pokemon and traffic cones (geez with the construction cone obsession). I figure removing cherished treasures to psychologically beat them into submission has potential. Just not sure if I have enough time and enough fridge top. Or if imprisoning the distractions will bring on full-scale war.

2. Force them to say “I love you.” I realized tonight that each genuinely thinks his brother hates him. Really does. Peanut has no sense that his younger brother worships him, and Butter has no idea that the little acts of kindness that arise here and there are peace offerings from a brother whose always wanted to love but feared the wrath. So every time they hit, kick, punch, flick, pull hair, menace, or berate, if I make them say I love you, they should develop a healthy aversion to that phrase, distrusting it and using it as a tool in the same way most kids forced to say “I’m sorry” learn to distrust and manipulate that phrase. Win in the short-term, win in the long-term, seems to me.

3. Scream and wring my hands. Because talking about kindness and gentleness, positive reinforcement, and expectations for civil behavior have fallen on deaf ears for 4 years, I should up the stakes, right? Scream, wail, fling myself between them? It would, at the least, serve my need for the theatrical.

4. Sob and wring my hands. See above explanation and…and nothing. Just replace “scream” with “sob.” That’s not me being a lazy writer. That’s some serious strategic planning.

5. Effusively praise kindness. We’ve had success in the past with the “notice a kindness, put a marble in a jar” scenarios in which kindnesses accumulate toward a big friendly family event like movie night or a walk with glow sticks. I guess I could try that rather simple idea of calling attention to what I like and want from them. Sounds boring, though. Can we go back to writhing and wailing?

6. Maximize their chances for success. Get them outside and moving as early and often as possible. Hikes, runs, bike rides, soccer drills, tennis, walks, yoga, catch…anything that gets them into their own bodies and off of each other. This is the best thing we’ve come up with to date. But then, tonight, I hear during the daily recap of favorite-moment/biggest-challenge-and-solution-brainstorm that Peanut’s favorite was today’s hike and his biggest challenge was his brother kicking him on the hike. I’m not sure what part of the hike I missed, but I should have had a camera poised for this highly athletic child’s crowning moment in which he can hike and kick someone at the same time. Similarly, it would have been nice to capture the stage-averse eldest in this decidedly dramatic moment. I’m guessing he threw himself to the ground and writhed a bit. Don’t know where he gets it.

7. Combine them all. Toy-removal consequences, concordance rewards, screaming, sobbing, exercise outdoors, and forced professions of love. What could go wrong if I just throw myself into micromanaging every breath out of their contentious little mouths?

Anyone? Ideas for brotherly peace? Other than from the famous Camp Don’t Fight with Your Brother, which for some reason has a waitlist, what do you vote? Please tell me you’ve had success with the sobbing. That’s my favorite. But I guess it’d be okay if you suggest something else. It’s not like any of my plans are winning us a calm, silly, kind household.

 

9

Where do I post this?

Dear Jay,

I miss you. I pick up the phone to text you at least once a week. There are so many things I want to tell you. Of course I want to tell you that I’m sad you died. But we covered that when you were alive. We were both sorry, and we had absolutely no say in the matter. So we both moved on, toward love and life and enjoying the time you had. I’ve mentioned I feel terrifically guilty for continuing on, right? No, of course I didn’t. Because when the cancer got bad and you learned the pain of how many people avoid death by avoiding their dying friend, you told me that you wanted us all to live and tell you about it and just act as though you were still the same. Because right up to the end, you were the same.

So let’s pretend, just for a while, okay?

We’re writing new software for the office. Can you believe it? What is that dreadful program…twenty years old? I’m hoping we get it done during the summer so the transition is easy. But speaking of uneasy transitions, we were having trouble with part of the old version last week and it dawned on me I didn’t have to struggle. “I’ll just call Jay,” I said out loud. And then I cracked wide open and I just sobbed. In front of everyone, with no way to make it polite or pretty or decent. I just lost my shit. I can’t call you. That is a stupid and horrible fact. And still true, no matter how much I hate it. But I do hate it.

I saw your kids a couple of weeks ago. So sweet. You know they’re sweet, but I want to remind you. I love hanging out with them. Your oldest is retreating into herself, which we predicted. She’s so unsure of herself right now, which is about her age not about missing you, it seems; but she’s strong and fierce and she’ll start to own her power soon enough. I worked with her on math and kept pointing out how well she does when she settles down and believes in herself. And she does. That’s you, right there: she believes in herself. Your life is looking pretty successful, right? Minus the whole death thing, you win at life.

You know, I should apologize for being seethingly angry at your funeral. It wasn’t really my fault, though: not one of those people at your memorial was you. And I came to celebrate you and talk with you and be with you. But there were hundreds of people, and nobody knew what you know or talked the way you talk or thought the way you might think. Jerks. It was lovely, if you’re into that kind of thing. I’ll take our backyard talks over a lovely memorial any day of the week, but I don’t get to choose.

Let’s see, what else…Spouse and I finally settled down into a quiet space where we could talk, and we both agreed we need to try being apart. It’s been much better since we agreed to separate. He’s kinder and funnier. I’m more calm and accommodating. The stuff you and I talked about with the kids has gotten better. I just wish to god I could have told you all this before you died. You knew. I knew. We both said out loud we knew. But we all thought it would be another five years, at least, so he and I could see if we could make it better.  Nope. Maybe your death got me to that calm, quiet place where I could see the forest despite the trees, but I don’t think so. Either way, we decided a couple of days after you died. Either my timing sucks or yours does. Since you’re not here to defend yourself, I’m saying it’s you.

So I’m rearranging my life now. It’s nice, and it’s scary. It’s sad. I’ll bet you know what I changed first. I’ll bet you know both of the things I changed first. Who cares about closets or couches, right? I rearranged the kitchen and the books.

I completely redesigned the fridge and cabinets, and tossed all the spices I hated. And it still doesn’t feel like enough. I might get new spatulas. Will that make things feel better? They work just fine, but they just seem sad and old and past their prime to me. Spatulas as metaphors. What a dork. You know those mugs we loved? I kept only those four, and donated all the others. More room in life when you get rid of what you don’t want, right? Right. I packed away all the wedding photos but left the family photos so the boys know that everybody in our family is welcome. He is welcome. He just doesn’t live here. Was that weird after your divorce? You aren’t  married, but you see your co-parent all the time? I am wildly uncomfortable, but I kind of like it. I like not being cut off from a part of my old life and I like seeing them happy with him. I don’t like the in between of having him over so much. I’d like a couple of weeks genuinely solo. But that’s silly because it’s not good for anybody else.

Parts of this process are nice. It’s nice to feel happy. Really. I had forgotten. And I know most people are expecting me to be troubled and sad and overwhelmed. But it feels quite good to breathe. I’m eating better, I’m sleeping better, and I’m more relaxed. Because that giant weight lifted off my family. Not just off me. Off the whole family. It feels as though a secret is out and everything is better. Did you feel that way when you came out? Or when you split up?

Even the books are now more honest. They’re not all grouped by literary period, because I’ve pulled those that I still haven’t finished (or even started) and put them on their own shelves. The unread, the Next, the “as soon as I have time” sit on their own shelves, begging to be noticed. Not posturing as part of a cluster as they would in a bookstore, hoping some day I’ll remember my intense need to read them. This is my house and these are my books, and I want the unread to remind me of what’s left to come, in a big ol’ honest FUTURE shelf. Two, really. I know you left a lot of unread books. I’m glad that was only sad to you for a little while, until you moved into that “between two worlds and unconcerned with earthly nonsense” phase.

But a few threads of silver lining the cloud don’t make the whole process of unraveling my marriage any easier. I’m overwhelmed by all the “what comes next”s and the “what have we done”s and the “what if we’re wrong”s . I wish I could ask you about how it went for you when you split up. I keep remembering what you said, though. The divorce is not even going to be a speck on the fabric of what forms your kids. Your death will be the defining event, bar none. I feel so dwarfed by the magnitude of that statement. I’m so sorry for you and A and the kids. I’m so grateful for my family. A family spread across two households doesn’t matter. Nobody’s dying. We win!

Ha.

Your manuscript is still in my desk. Your number is still on my phone. I actually closed my facebook account because they posted a message to me last week. “Jay misses you. Write on his wall!” I said a few really bad words at the computer, closed it, and went to rearrange the DVDs. There aren’t very many, but it made me smile to shift them around. They used to sit in simple his/hers piles. Now they’re John-Hughes/not-John-Hughes piles.

Jay misses me, eh algorithm? Well, he might, but I doubt it. Jay’s dead. Jay doesn’t miss me one-millionth as much as I miss him. Jay has moved on to something completely different. I’m here struggling to remember that change is good and a given in life. Most changes are good, if you find the right way to look at them. And my life now is better. And it’s going to keep heading in that direction, except when it doesn’t. Life: messy, and rarely easy.

Messy and rarely easy. Like your life, and like your death. I know those last weeks were horrible, and I’m glad you died, if only because it stopped the hurt and the sadness and the waiting. I hope your afterlife is going well. Maybe write me back, if you have a chance. It would be nice to hear from you. The past few months have been harder because I can’t talk to you. So bust out all your other-worldly tricks and give me a shout. Even if you think getting new spatulas is a bad idea.

Love,
C

4

Don’t blink!

This weekend was hectic and full and overwhelming. As weekends are. I was sick as a dog Sunday, but we had the last soccer game of the season and the party and the coaches’ cards I had organized. I had to be upright and smiling half the day, which was not ideal. And I was supposed to be working the other half the day, which was nigh impossible.

And as we left a lovely party with lovely families, my little guy was hilariously spastic. He and his brother were being goofy along the sidewalk, and I asked them to move aside for the man walking behind us. He smiled, but said it was fine that my kids were crazy.

“I miss this,” he told me. “Mine are teenagers and never get silly any more.”

“I love it,” I smiled, “but it would be nice for them to slow down just a bit. Once in a while.”

“You’ll miss it,” he told me again.

“I believe you. Because it’s seven days a week, 20 hours a day, and I will notice any moment of slowdown.”

I had to lie down at home after managing to be vertical for four hours after a long morning of not being able to keep down tea. The boys rolled all over me and ran screaming through the house and played a raucous game  of water balloons with their dad. I photographed the last bit, after puking my sips of water, because these memories never come back, and I knew when I felt better I’d love watching the smiles on their faces as they pelted Dad with exploding projectiles.

And I was sure I’d miss a client deadline today, because I couldn’t work as hard yesterday as I had planned to. I stayed up late, with sips of hot water and mint, and did what I could before I emailed the bad news.

But this morning both kids crawled into bed with me. The eldest asked me about caves and told me his plans for minecraft. The little guy slept. And slept. And slept.

He went along unwillingly to Peanut’s school dropoff. He tolerated my Monday run, and refused all treats that I offered. We came home and he collapsed in a whiny heap on the couch. Without asking for a movie.

Is it wrong to say I’m lucky he was sick? I made the deadline.

He slowed down for twelve hours and I felt restored. I sorted through the boxes their dad restacked in the garage after moving his boxes. I pondered a new organizing principle for my books. I chopped cabbage, diced a pineapple, and made tomorrow’s lunches. I made homemade veggie burgers. I drafted a client ad, swept, planned client blog posts, returned emails, and processed survey results from the preschool.

I’m sad that my little guy can’t get up off the couch. I know how he feels; I was there yesterday. But I’m so intensely glad he slowed down, just for a day.

Kid fevers are like vacation in my house.*

Is that awful to say? It would make a great ad for the don’t-use-fever-reducing-medicine-for-low-grade-temperatures campaign.  “A day of peace and quiet brought to you by a virus.”

*For the record, I would never let my child’s fever get too high. He is waking every hour or so for drink, and he asked for a plain bagel right before we picked up his brother from school. I’m not letting my child languish so I can work.

He just happens to be languishing. So I’m taking advantage of it to work.

And it feels soooooo right.

4

Coming home

A long travel day, a long conference day, a long travel day. Moments of embarrassingly loud laughter, long stretches of insect-splatting boredom, sparks of intellectual fireworks, flawless time with friends, and a breathtaking moment of euphoria.

art institute of chicago Chagall exhibit

Back home, half of the plates are gone. The wedding china, which we’ve always used as everyday dishes. Their absence makes space for the boys’ two favorite dishes to rest together on the same shelf. Finally. I don’t like these little upsides. They feel like laughing at a funeral.

Half of the drinking cups are gone. Makes the collection a little coffee-focused. Kid glasses and coffee mugs and a set of happy-making mathematical highballs. With a lot of what I expect just…gone. Maybe I’ve expected too much. And by “maybe,” I mean “of course.”

The dresser he’s had for decades is sitting by the front door. It’s ready. I don’t know if he’s ready. I’m not ready. That’s too bad. We have to be ready. We don’t, of course, but he’s moving and “ready” isn’t the point.

We’re in for a lot of change. There is no “my side” of the bed anymore. Or the fun we had every year on New Year’s Eve of switching sides of the bed. Just for a year. Just to see if it settles anything. Or unsettles anything. Or everything.

What will I do now to shake things up? Have a conversation with myself?

I emptied the mission-style letter-writing desk I picked out, so he can take it to his new apartment that I hate and is too far and is all wrong and is none of my business. And I had him move my work desk from the dining room to the bedroom. My bedroom. Two closets just for me and more space than I’ll ever need. Maybe I’ll move the kids into the master with me, and we’ll move all the furniture in that too-big room and we’ll be happy forever without any problems or fights or unmet needs. The end.

The expectant hope of a new home, where unpacking the books and kitchen tools is so important because they set the stage for everything…I’m doing that in my own house. Not my own, really. A rental I can’t afford by myself. I’ll figure that out later. After I reorganize everything in the manic hope that rearranging until 3am will make the next day okay.

I want to move because there’s too much house for three. I don’t want to move because the last thing the kids need right now is more change. I pause for a deep breath of gratitude that we have that choice. I’m glad for that choice.

I offered some of the framed photos and he accepted. Will it upset the kids to see blank spots on the walls where their photos hung for three years? Will they be happy to know he wants their photos decorating his life or will they notice only the absence? Of photos, of couch, of father visiting four days a week but clearly just a guest.

Did I make him feel like just a guest in the marriage? An employee, an afterthought? Probably. A few plates and cups and a couch isn’t making as large a dent as I thought it would. Did he not have enough of him here, or do I just not notice how much is really leaving?

The little one, my sweet, irrational, King-Kongesque little butterbean wants to know why Daddy has to move his furniture. Why is he bringing things to his new place? They haven’t really understood yet, because it’s been just talk. I think he believed the new apartment he saw was somehow just a daytime space, like for work. Dad sleeping somewhere else because he doesn’t live here? He has literally no friends with divorced parents. Nobody else in our family is separated. I’m sure there will be a trophy or a plaque issued for that particular honor soon enough, but Butter has no frame of reference. Until now. So I’ve taught him about rainbows and mammals and glitter glue and divorce. Gee, that feels exactly the opposite of terrific. “We’re still a family, and we’re living in different houses. We still love you and we both want to be with you all the time. We just don’t do a good job of being with each other.” But that’s not true anymore. We do a very good job of being with each other. So then…why?

There will be questions. I know this will come. “But you are nice together now. Why can’t you be in the same house now that you know how to be kind together?”

I don’t know.

I really don’t know. I’ve asked that, too. For now, or for good, “he doesn’t want to” is the truth the boys won’t hear. We carefully unify in our answers in a way we never did when we were together. And I can’t tell them their dad said that he only has enough kindness for temporary, transitional interactions. I’m in the bargaining phase, though. “If we can keep being this way and we can both work hard on maintaining this civility and mutual respect and…can’t we just please…” It’s been so much work for years just to stay together, so much constant stress to keep from either sinking into depression or running screaming for a distant land that there’s an ease between us now. And I want to keep that ease. Can’t we be like this and stay a whole family? In one place? Can’t we please? I want someone to answer that for me. Because everything would be different, right? We’d be different people with different interests and different approaches and different priorities? We would heal all our issues and be to each other what we should be. To stay together we could do that, right? Maybe. Let’s just try…I know, but maybe try for four more years? It’s only been 15 years total. Why would we assume we know anything yet?

He’s happy and acts like the man I met, animated and clever and fun. The man I married. I try not to focus on the fact that he’s happy because he’s leaving. Because he doesn’t have to anymore. I was a have to.

The wine and the cookbooks are staying. We split the mixing bowls and he got new cutting boards. I want new cutting boards. The beer’s all gone. I rearranged the fridge at midnight, so the veggies are finally in the crisper and the shelves organized by meal. He doesn’t pack school lunches, so why does he get to put the peanut butter in the door? I don’t want it in the door. I don’t want tortillas in the cheese drawer. I don’t want soda crowding the shelves. One for when he visits, and one for my mom. One. They only get a tiny piece of my space because I need to control the space, hold up the house’s walls as they start pressing in. I want all the lunch options together, dammit. Can’t I have that?

Yes, now I can. Oh, and how’s that feel? Everything better now that you can control the peanut butter?

Didn’t think so.

His books are gone. My Modernism shelf has a lot of detritus cluttering it; bits and pieces he found as he packed are sitting by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t want old CDs and cat toys and a battery recharger blocking James Joyce. I reject that arrangement. I want to just sell all the books because there’s not much about language experimentation from the 1920s I want in my face right now. Thank goodness I don’t own any Hemingway or I would have burned it last night. He’s just exactly the guy on whom I’d like to take out my anger. My Faulkner shelf is too high to put things on it, thank goodness. Alphabetical, same publisher and cover system, not too carefully lined up, but solid and supportive in its panic-inducing insanity. Am I going to have to change these shelves? I grouped the books as intentionally as I could: by literary movement when possible, geography when appropriate, and read vs. unread vs. half-read status as necessary. But there are other methods that could make sense, could inspire more reading, could excite my boys into a world of incredible literature. I’ll do that tonight. Because at 4 and 8 it’s crucial that they see a wall of books arranged flawlessly? I worry myself at times, except that I’m consistent, so I know nothing’s too wrong.

What is going to become of my books? What if we move? What if I can’t bring them all? Should I sell them now and just say goodbye? What if, what if, what if? A good reason to get even less sleep. What if? Thinking myself in worried circles like a child rubbing a lovey against her almost sleeping cheek. Or a woman tracing the yellow wallpaper of her room.

My feminist theory shelf is still half-empty—listing and slumped with the freedom of not being packed like literary sardines—from my two-month effort to write the paper that begged me to write it for four years. It was well received. I need to edit it and get it to a journal soon. It’s just too awesome and I want it available to anyone who might care.

I don’t feel awesome, though. There is guilt for swelling with freedom and pride. Now that I’m supporting the kids on my income, there is a constant fear in my freelancing way of life, working this week on too many projects, that the projects will dry up next month. I’ll look for something permanent once these clients slow down.

There is frustration with the same conversations, the same petty bickering, the same nasty under-breath comments said in retreat from a dialogue. Get back here. Talk to me.

You’re not coming back, are you.

I want the ease, the kindness, the joy. I want a relationship, not a roommate. I want surety but not at the cost of how I believe a family should treat each other, at a minimum. I want to know what it will be if we fight for us, though he said he’s not going to try anymore. I want to know what it will be if we give up, so I can decide based on what it’ll be like in a year, two years, ten years. I want to know what is best for everyone, I want to know in advance, and I want to know precisely. With numbers and measurements and guarantees.

Because so much of life is measurable and knowable. Ha. If you want guarantees, get married. I’m pretty sure a promise to someone you love is good enough to carry you through 80 years or so.

I want to know what to want. And while I’m figuring that out, I’ll move the dining room table and change where we keep the art supplies just in case that helps. Anyone have a feng shui book for where to put glitter glue and markers to ensure good decision-making and emotional well-being?

7

Isn’t it postmodern? Don’t you think?

Four-year-old Butter loves to sit on my lap and pretend to read books. Any books. His favorite are texts he’s already memorize (I’m looking at you, Frog and Toad), but he’ll fake read anything he can get his hands on.

Tonight, he opened a text on embodiment and ethics that I’m zipping through in case it helps my paper for this week’s conference, and ran his finger along this line:

“Or, as Judith Butler suggests, partly following Foucault, gender is that embodied entity constituted through a ‘stylised repetition of acts’ the significance of which is social rather than natural” (Butler 1990: 140).

And he read it thusly: “Once upon a time, there was a little girl. And the girl…The End.”

So, clearly: full ride to Rutgers’ Women’s Studies Department.

9

Just close your eyes

There is an exercise we do in fencing warm ups: we balance on one foot. And then we switch to the other. And after we switch back, we balance on each foot with our eyes closed.

You find out two things when you close your eyes and balance on one leg. 1) A surprising amount of balance predicates itself on vision. 2) Your proprioceptors function amazingly well if you get out of their way. Because the human body should adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to stimuli. In fact, the human brain should also adjust, balance, and re-adjust in response to input.

So why do I feel as though, only a few weeks into the initial process, that a divorce is knocking my body and brain so far out of whack they can’t adjust?

I know this isn’t supposed feel easy or simple. I know after 15 years the path isn’t going seem as clear as we’d hoped when we finally, finally admitted how wrong our marriage has been for so very long.  I have proof, from the Interwebs, which tell me whenever I ask, that feeling all of the feelings is normal, even during an amiable split. Read some really lovely and awful and heart-felt descriptions of the journey from the incomparable Heather of the EO and my new blog-crush Carla of All of Me Now.

By the way, any time someone says their divorce portends a good thing, and that they’re both doing a great job of addressing the issues they could never address while married, you should give them caramel, the way two of my friends did. Because I can tell you that “doing a great job” of splitting up is something like doing a great job reading Heart of Darkness. It’s ugly and awful, and nobody would ever recommend it to anyone else. Caramel I can recommend unequivocally to everyone. Divorce and/or Conrad? Not so much.

But until a couple of weeks ago I thought, because I’m quite keen on control and planning and overthinking, that I could make a nice tidy plan for how this breakup would go.  And that it would. Go. Just follow a path toward eventual harmony and paperwork and a co-parenting friendship.

Rather like the way I thought I was rather balance-y at fencing. Until I close my eyes. Turns out I balance myself by finding stable points ahead of me and staring at them. When I close my eyes, that stable fixative point ghosts into a bleeding black puddle behind my eyelid, and the swimming scarlet and yellow vitreous drowns my efforts to clench myself into balance and unnerves my thinking mind enough to make me wobble. A lot.

Navigating through the day in an almost-former-marriage feels a lot like wobbling on one foot with your eyes closed. [My eyes closed. I can't speak for you, nor should I. If you ever try both the blind one-foot-balancing trick and the initial phases of separation in the same week, let me know how they compare.] I feel as though I have it all under control, barely, until I blink. And then logistics and hurt and choices and relief and work and timing and panic and money and regret and discussions and feelings and my poor, sweet, vulnerable little boys all swim in green and blue and purple venous blobs before me like a lake of bruises beneath which I’m drowning.

So I open my eyes. And I try to balance without focusing so hard. I try to let my body balance me rather than trying to force everything with my mind. I try to trust and I try to breathe. And I try to memorize how my body feels with this balance so that when I close my eyes I care less how it looks than how it feels.

And each day happens. And each night does, too. And the next day there’s another endless string of challenges.

And when I let my body handle those obstacles, rather than relying just on my mind, it’s like living in molasses. Because letting go and not controlling the hell out of everything taps proprioceptors I’ve never used before. I’m so slow right now. I type slowly. I think slowly and answer slowly. I’m even running so  slowly that I’m considering seeing a doctor. I’ve lost more than a minute per mile off my regular, don’t-have-to-try-for-it pace. That minute, on every mile I’ve run for the past month, is gone. Lost to the ether. I hope some young person in love and full of hope is running faster with my minutes. I miss them, but I’m willing to lose them forever if they go to a good home.

The words “a good home” make me a little maudlin. And by “a little” I mean “ask me in person because I’ll admit very little on a public blog even though I’m pretty darned honest here at good ol’ NaptimeWriting.”

All I know is that if asking my mind and body to do too much leaves me wobbling, I need to balance smarter. Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed, rolling with the wobbles. Because that’s what learning experiences are for, right? Strengthening muscles you didn’t know you had? Part of me says, “but I don’t want these muscles because I promise I’ll never need them again.” But I will. For the rest of my relationship with the boys’ father, I will need these blind-balance muscles.

And that right now is the saddest part for me, after the waves of gut-punches at what this adult tower of cards means for the boys: I’m building muscles I don’t want to need. But I do need them. And so I will build them. I have to.

Eyes open, deep breath; eyes closed…let go.

 

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6

Mom’s practical advice

I’ve read many lovely odes to mothers online this week, and I particularly liked Alexandra Rosas’s discussion of what her mother taught her about living. The wonderful feeling of being nurtured and loved that permeates most Mother’s Day posts makes me happy.

But there’s another important function of Mom: keeping you safe and healthy.. My mom didn’t teach me about how to braise a turkey or follow my bliss. My mother’s advice was, at its best, logical—focused on ensuring we were never caught by circumstances in a position where we couldn’t take care of ourselves. My mom’s words of wisdom might not look great on a coffee mug and they might not help me make a delicious fried chicken, but they’ve kept me from making big mistakes in life. Here are my mom’s top ten lessons to me:

1. Never carry a balance on your credit card. If you can’t pay it off this month, don’t buy it. Seriously. The interest you pay means you could save your money and buy two of whatever it is. So wait until you could write a check and then use your card for the miles/points/bonus.

2. Write thank you notes. For gifts, for interviews, for any kindness. On paper.

3. Always maintain at least two accounts in your own name. No matter how much you love someone, you don’t want to be by yourself with no credit and no access to cash if something ever happens. My mom was divorced in the era where a woman couldn’t retain her credit after divorce, and after she and my dad separated she found herself with no bank account, no credit cards, and no credit history. So she got a department store card and started building her credit history by buying only what she could afford and paying off the balance every month. See advice #1.

4. Don’t put recreational chemicals in your body, if only because they compromise the best thing you have to offer the world: your brain. She taught this one by tailoring the message, rather than by lecturing: she said that she personally didn’t use substances because she hated feeling out of control. Loss of control?! My kryptonite! I’m never trying any of them.

5. Oral sex is still sex, and if he’s not willing to give before he gets, he doesn’t deserve any.

6. Never wait for the last minute. There is nothing good about rushing around as the world crashes down around your project. Take the deadline and calculate backwards. Start the day you know about a deadline and make early progress. Submit early. That way, if life throws obstacles in your way, you won’t freak out. Because you’ll be handling tasks like a boss.

7. If you do nothing else before you leave the house, put on lipstick. A little color makes everything better.

8. Okay, mascara, too. Because the two, together, takes 20 seconds.

9. Keep your eyes up and your ears open because it’s when you look like an easy target that you will be one.

10. Life’s not fair. Don’t hope that you’ll get what’s due you because that’s not how this life works. Good guys sometimes finish first and they sometimes finish last. Worry more about how you get there than what number you are at the end.

I may not follow 7 or 8 regularly (because, seriously, 20 seconds seems like a lot), but the rest shaped the fabric of who I am.

What smart, practical advice did your mom give you growing up?

12

Coping mechanisms

Dang. I’m not going to lie. This separating thing is already hard, and we’ve barely begun.

Yes, I wrote a long post about how we’re doing everything we can to be respectful as we dissolve our marriage. I even noted that we’re glad to have the Paltrow/Martin model of conscious uncoupling to follow. And how we’re kinder now that we see a way out of an untenable situation.

But deciding to split our household is not making us magically perfect humans. Shocking, I know. “What? You mean just because you write one thousand words about being ideal partners doesn’t actually make you ideal partners? I never would have guessed.” I knew the civility phase was just a phase, because for four years we haven’t been all that civil. A whirlwind course in breaking habits is in order. And we’re both slipping back into old pattens more often than we’d like.

But we’re trying.

So I’m trying to be gentle with myself. I’m trying to be especially gentle with him. I’m naturally pretty gentle with the kids, but I’m doing an even better job by just giving myself timeouts.

But I’m also using the following techniques to keep my cool and make it through stressful days. Feel free to copy my coping mechanisms if you’re in the middle of a major upheaval. Because I’m nothing if not emotionally healthy and excellent at modeling good behavior. [Snort.]

Sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. I dropped it a while ago, and felt mostly self-righteous but not all that healthy when it was gone. Now I’m quite happy to point out that it’s called self-medication for a reason. I had a few drinks this week, and I do not like at all how compelling it feels to use booze to take the edge off. So I’m going to avoid liquor for a while, and instead I’m choosing chocolate. And caramel. And gummy things and chewy things and all the sugar things. Because I have more than a little going on, and I’ll be damned if I’m going through it with just kale to keep me company.

Biting my tongue. We did not get to the point where we needed to dissolve our marriage because I’m good with calm reactions. I tend to respond before I think, usually with some version of “no.” I don’t like change, I don’t want to change, and I don’t want anyone else to change. Life is complicated enough without relearning things every five minutes. So for most of my life, I could tell you that just “no” will have to do as an answer to every question you ever ask me. Especially if you happen to be moving out of my house but staying in my life. I have a big ol’ “hell no” for all questions that begin from that corner of the Universe. But I’m trying really hard to bite down before “no” flies out of my mouth. Because you know what my future ex-husband needs? He needs someone to hear him out. To think first. And to respond only when a thoughtful, respectful answer has percolated up.

Deep breaths. It would be nice if, along with the sugar, I was exercising a lot. I’m not. I am in a teeth-chattering panic about becoming financially stable immediately, if not sooner, so I’m taking every freelance job that comes my way. And that makes for a day that involves writing every free minute (and lots of sugar; see above). I’m trying to move my body. I know exercise helps mood and thought clarity and sleep and self-confidence. I know all these things very well. But because I just don’t have the time every day, I’m substituting deep breaths. I’ve never been good at slowing down long enough to breathe. Or blink. So now, when something feels really good (like the bearded irises in bloom in the neighbor’s yard, the soul-warming sunshine, the increasing moments of sibling harmony, or a gift from a friend of handmade chocolate thingamabobs) I close my eyes and take a deep breath. And when I want to fight or cry or say something inappropriate, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I’ve probably taken more than my share of oxygen this week. I’ll be honest and tell you: I’m not sorry. I’ve lived 41 years without taking my fair share of deep breaths, and now they’re mine. All mine.

Asking for help. The reason we posted about our conscious uncoupling on the Interwebs is not just because we didn’t want to call the people we love and explain how we’ve fallen apart and can’t make our marriage work. Though, whoa Nelly, the thought of making those calls still chills my highly-sugared blood. The blog-post announcement was rooted in a desire for an army of support behind us. And we got it. We asked, and people called and texted and emailed to say they would do anything to make this easier for us. And that got me to take a big gulp of pride. “Thank you. Yes, you can help. Would you please…”  Nobody yet has said no. You know why? Friends are generally kind and want to help. And people feel uncomfortable about things like death and divorce, so they want to be assigned a project to make them feel useful. I think the next person who offers to help will hear a request to attempt the 2013 photo albums I haven’t finished yet.

Zombie prom. You may or may not have the chance. But if a school you know offers an ’80s Prom Zombie Apocalypse option for the big Spring fundraiser, you might want to roll with it. Have your kids dress up as you try to get the dark circles around your eyes from half-dead dark grey to undead green-and-purple grey.

(I love that this is how they think zombies look…)

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Ignore the mess in those photos. Because refusing to clean up anything is just another of my now famous coping mechanisms.

4

Dancing on marbles

Life is one big precarious attempt to not tumbling ass over teakettle, I am now convinced. And I’m trying to see the joy in the slapstick of walking boldly across a slick path made unpredictable with hundreds of marbles. Because every time I’m posed to post on this very spot about something lovely, I’m walloped upside the head with something decidedly unlovely.

And every time I want to wallow in the unlovely, something decidedly lovely distracts me.

You are likely aware, if you’ve been reading here for a while, that my gobsmackingly awesome children are finally starting to get along. Wise friends with three boys told me that once the little guy hit Four it would get better. And it has (with all the caveats about the fact that three people in the same house, none of whom has much emotional control, are rarely in the same mood and on the same page). Sometimes, now, when the first pats of butter-yellow light slip through their blinds and plop onto their beds each morning, Peanut and Butter wake up willing to engage in silly, playful interactions rather than surly, bickering nastiness. Sometimes. And that has increased the quality of life around here immeasurably.

Part of the boys’ getting along more probably roots in the fact that their Dad and I are being much calmer now that we’ve decided not to live together. Less struggle begets less struggle. So far. When there is tangible paternal-absence and marked maternal-lack-of-running-time, when the there might be a struggle or two. See the above metaphor about making steady progress along a marble-strewn path.

I’m sure that, in part, the boys’ kindness to one another stems from a fabulous trip to Boston. We walked the Charles, we spent our tourist dollars at Marathon Sports on Boylston. We ate good food (my GAWD I’ve missed Red Bones) and we practically lived on the T. We cheered for marathoners until we were hoarse. We even offered our fluffernutters to the many, many police working the course on Patriot’s Day. (One indignant Statie told me he already had his peanut butter with jelly, thank you. And then I believe he was fired for inMassabordination.) We spent time like a family, and it was good for everyone.

Part of the increased sibling harmony also stems from a deep sadness that has stilled my otherwise frenetic pace. The death of my friend has brought a rather large dollop of “I don’t care about anything any more” to my endless to-do lists and my frantic need to prove myself worthy through incessant activities.

As we made it through the memorial, we found out that a mutual friend, who was diagnosed with leukemia around the same time Jay had his first surgery, has relapsed. This little boy, who spent kindergarten in Children’s Hospital enduring rounds and rounds of chemo, and whose family learned a gratitude few of us will ever fathom, enjoyed first- and second-grade without cancer. Now his leukemia is back. He’s going through a couple of weeks of chemo before a bone marrow transplant.  We’re all trying coming together as a community, again, to get people checked, at no cost, to see if they’re matches for any of the many Americans in need of bone marrow. And maybe, if enough people get the free test, we can find our little guy a match!

So that’s exciting. If you’re one of the people who’s into bright sides and finding the joy of surfing the marble-covered path to tomorrow, it’s enlivening to have a purpose. To help. To appreciate and breathe and put one foot in front of the other. Nothing brings me out of “what’s the point” like a bone marrow drive.

Go hug your family. Email your friends and tell them you love them. Take a deep breath each morning, and relish what’s good.

And consider being tested to see if you’re a match for, and can help give a great life to, a sweet little boy.

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https://www.facebook.com/amatchforbay

 

8

Boston, one year later

We’re leaving for Boston soon (nice try, creepy burglar people, but we have a housesitter and trained attack kittens) and I’m so excited. Friends I haven’t seen in years, research for my novel, the always heart-filling fun of watching Spouse run a marathon.

But I’m worried. We haven’t told the kids about last year’s tragedies. We don’t plan to. I really, really really, really don’t want to. Really. Last year was devastating. Disgusting. Terrifying. Enraging. Like many others I spent every single ounce of saline in my body weeping for the families affected by those monstrous acts. I spent all night watching Twitter as the police went from my old work neighborhood to my improv neighborhood to my friends’ neighborhood tracking the alleged bombers. Brothers.

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

Photo: David L. Ryan/Boston Globe

I’m looking forward to seeing how Boston is healing itself. I love that town and I keenly miss being a part of its crispy, crunchy shell and gooey center. (Boston is the caramel M&M that the Mars company has never successfully created.) I want to celebrate Boston and its efforts, I want to feel the community that has overcome the most horrible act during a celebratory act on a holiday of revolutionary acts. I am thrilled we’re going to cheer for Boston.

But I don’t want my boys to hear anything about the bombings. I don’t want them to see or know or think or in any way learn about the families, the sidewalks, the streets that will never be the same.

How terrible is that, though? Is it disrespectful of those families and runners and spectators and first responders to keep this painful reality hidden from young children?The mother in me says no, but it feels wrong to hide the truth.

We’re going back to Boston because I could never fathom being away from that city this week. I started training to qualify for Boston the day after the bombings. (I didn’t get far. I’m easily injured and I have limited time for training. So it’s not going to happen this year.) So did Spouse. We contorted family plans and finances to get the family out to Mass. as soon as he qualified. We’ve been practicing the proper pronunciation of the Chaaahlie Caaaahds we’ll need next week.

But I don’t want them to know.

Is that wrong? Is it disrespectful? If it even possible, given all the love Boston is pouring into Back Bay this week?

I want to honor those who died, those who were injured, those who helped, those who ran, those who sought, and those who stopped…I want so much to do whatever I can to help the healing.

But I don’t want to tell my kids.

Does that make me weak? Parental? Cowardly? Ridiculous? Mature?

31

Parenting 2.0

Spouse and I have tried to teach our children how to face conflict: assess the situation, design a solution, work hard to do your best, notice what’s working and what isn’t, try even harder, and be flexible and open to new decisions when new information arises. I don’t know if these words have  sunk in yet. We explain that doing the hard, sometimes boring work of practicing a skill, whether reading or soccer or math, is really important for later, when you have to build on that foundation. We’ve explained that mastering any skill takes incessant, regular, repetitive brain exercise. Struggle is important. But too much struggle is sometimes a signal to stop, take a breath, and change course. “We’re a family of problem-solvers,” we always say. Because you can’t bang your head against a brick wall and hope it’ll move. You have to be tricksty.

And now they’re going to see what we really mean about working hard, trying again and again, and, sometimes, giving up because you just can’t make something work. Spouse and I have arrived at a new realization and we’re figuring out how to implement our plan. We’re pretty sure that we’re going to focus on what we do well: love our kids. And we’re going to ditch what we don’t do well: being married.

Marriage is hard work. And we expected that because anything worth having involves active, thoughtful work. But marriage shouldn’t be miserable without cease. And the work should show some reward. Banging our heads against a brick wall trying to force our marriage back where it was ten years ago hasn’t worked. Neither has therapy or empathy or practicing communication skills or willing ourselves to compatibility.

We’re a family of problem solvers, dagnabbit, so we’re going to stop doing the same thing and expecting different results. The life hack here is elegant, simple, and scary: be the best parents possible to our children without being married.

The effects of agreeing to work smarter not harder have been immediate and palpable. After years of being our worst selves with each other, struggling yet finding ourselves sad, lonely, and angry, we’re going to stop forcing it. And saying that out loud has made us more patient with each other and with the boys. We obviously have years of work to do to repair the damage we’ve done to each other in this marriage, but we’ve gone a long way toward some kind of healing this week.

I have always feared divorce. So has Spouse. We both had parents who divorced, and neither of us weathered that process well. In fact, we’ve resisted even talking about a separation for years because we don’t want to hurt the boys.  But here’s the truth: we can’t control everything that happens to them, and we certainly can’t continue the way we are, pretending that married parents are better for children than any other situation. We’d rather address any feelings our children have by actively and lovingly engaging with them. Both of us. We can’t control their feelings but we can control giving them the best home environment we can. Two happy parents listening to them and being with them regularly from different houses is much better than two exhausted and raw parents snapping at each other and at them.

The societal obligation to stay married t one person for 80+ years leaves me tense, waiting to shiver in the shadow of failure-guilt. But since we talked about letting go, we’ve been kind and understanding, gentle with each other and with ourselves. I can’t tell you the relief of getting along, after years of just feeling wrong. I can’t speak for him, but I’m incredibly proud of how mature we’re being. Come back and read in a week and see if that’s still true. For now, this doesn’t feel like failure.

I’ve read and heard many people mocking Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s announcement that they’re consciously uncoupling, forming a partnership that involves co-parenting but not marriage. I don’t understand the vitriol or mocking. I know they have enough money that they don’t share our worries about whose couch to sleep on, whether self-help books from the library are enough to count as therapy, or whether we’ll have to uproot Peanut to a different school system because we can’t afford two rents in our district. But it seems to me that the conscious uncoupling being so roundly mocked on social media is pretty damned mature. Understanding that disentangling adult lives requires leaving intact the framework we’ve built around the children’s growth seems like a baseline for all couples separating. If Gwyneth and Chris are unraveling the parts that aren’t working but redoubling their efforts where their love does the most good, then I say mazel tov.

Spouse and I are making preparations for how things will look in the short- and long-term. And though I got confused initially, the ease with which we can cultivate a warm kindness for each other does not mean we have a marriage. It means that we are partners. And that is the point, because we are going to be partners forever. We have children whose well-being demands our most engaged effort.

I believe separating, consciously uncoupling, and perhaps divorcing are all going to be challenging. But I believe our children are emotionally strong, and that as reasonable human beings and respectful partners, we can engage in this process together and make it right for us.

If someone offered to partner kindly and thoughtfully with you to raise your children, but didn’t want to be married to you, would you take that compromise? Or would you fight to force the union, and let strife affect every moment of your emotional life?

I’m taking what’s behind Door Number Three. Because I’m tired of forcing our family into emotional turmoil. And know a good deal when I see it.

 

 

8

Aces: spades and hearts

My amazing big guy is now Eight. And my dear little man has turned Four.

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We all made it alive, mostly, through Three, that year that lives as a specter on the psyche of every parent, that year emblazoned with red, dripping letters that cry, “Why does everyone say that Two is such a big deal? Three is the year that leaves no family unscathed!”

And just a few days into Four, I can say…it’s a tiny bit better. So far. Not holding my breath or anything. This isn’t my first time to the rodeo and I know phases last just long enough to get used to them, and then all techniques become invalid and parenting permit is up for renewal again, just a week after you finally passed the test for Extreme Tantrums, age Three Years and Fifty Weeks. Probably. If phases get too predictably unpredictable, then they stay for a while. Whatever it takes to maximize digiposture among human parental units.

The part I find most amusing about Four this time around is the bipolar self-awareness. Last week, he said to me, “Mommy, I’m a bad guy. No…I’m a good guy. That makes me a wild card, right?”

Oh good gawd, boy, it sure does. I laughed, which makes him giddy. He now tells me that lunch is a sandwich, no it’s yogurt, no it’s a wild card. And his travel backpack has trucks and ninja because…you guessed it…the backpack is a wild card.

Family game night is obviously having an effect on the lens through which he views the world. But little Wild Card is a big change for our family. We’re a group of persevering gamespeople. We open a game and we’re in it for the night. Butter, though, ceases all engagement after one round. No matter how long the endeavor takes, once a single full game finishes, he collects the pieces, drops them in the box, replaces the lid, and drags out something new. This has completely upended the whole way of life for our tenacious crew. Peanut, Spouse, and I could play 700 rounds of Yahtzee and not think it’s time to be done. We can get through an hour of Indigo, get some water, and start again. Done? What do you mean you’re done? There’ve only been ten games! Challenge the winner. Reject your current strategies and test some new tricks. Hope for better letters next time.

And while I’m not in my element with someone who feels he’s done after one round, he is a refreshing change from the sweet older guy whose attention span rivals a doctoral thesis advisor’s. Peanut can take a task and work on it for hours. Genuinely hours. Meticulous, careful work.

Such care and attention make hanging out with him quite enjoyable.

They’re both lovely fun and I enjoy them enormously.

Here’s the catch (for you know there is one…I’ve been blogging here for six years and you know darned well that fewer than a handful of posts exist without a catch): my children are amazing company with one-on-one. But that arrangement is rare. More often, they’re sharing physical space (poor stereotypical siblings: younger wants to do everything older does, and older wants younger really, really far away). Each boy is almost always seeking exactly the opposite of what his sibling offers. Peanut wants to do something intensely and for hours on end, and Butter is done after five minutes. He gets frustrated with Peanut for lingering, Peanut gets frustrated at Butter for ruining his concentration/picture/building/project/flow and loud, acrimonious, physical battles ensue.

And my job is to interrupt the fight, explain how they each need to talk about their needs and feelings, and how they each need to respect their differences. But they’re four and eight. They love fighting. Butter doesn’t want to articulate that he’s done and would like company on his next adventure. Peanut doesn’t want to explain, again, that he’d like to finish what he started.

And so games, art, reading, play, potion-making, and crafts are all punctuated by raucous, adrenaline-provoking frustrations. I intercede. They don’t want to hear me. I try to reason with them. I try emotion, I try logic. I either give up or separate them.

Usually.

But not at the beach.

 

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At the beach there is no end to the compromises they’re willing to make or the personality flaws they’re willing to overlook.

I think we’ll just move to the beach.